Shooting ourselves in the foot is an art that we seem to have mastered-to such an extent in fact, that it threatens to soon turn into our national pastime. For a country trying its best to attract foreign investment to its shores by the billions, the recent spate of controversies surrounding one mega industrial project after another has served to seriously vitiate the investment climate in the country, with few signs of matters taking a turn for the better any time soon. Be it Posco, Vedanta or Singur, the tide of opposition from varied quarters has been swelling for quite a while now, and unless dealt with firmly , could inflict a serious dent on the ambitious 10% growth plans the Govt has outlined for the coming decade. Given the almost cyclical/recurring nature of these protest movements, is it time to finally take a call on where we stand on this crucial question, one which has a serious bearing on the course that our economy takes as we enter arguably the most exciting, yet challenging phase of our nation’s economic destiny?
At the very outset, let’s be perfectly clear that this is not a Corporate Elite vs Poor Helpless Villager debate. To reduce it to such binary terms would do grave injustice to the millions of young men and women across our country’s rural/tribal landscape, for whom such projects represent a rare opportunity to escape from the hardships of back-breaking agricultural labor, which has been the only viable means of employment ( under-employment?) for as long as they have known. For every NGO/professional social activist (yeah, it’s a full time job now), who may cry hoarse about the havoc large industrial projects wreak upon the local inhabitants and the environment, there are hundreds, if not thousands of unemployed youth who would gladly welcome a secure job/future with a Tata or a Mittal. So, to suggest that such investments are opposed by the entire spectrum of local stakeholders would be a distortion of the ground realities. Furthermore, with millions of new entrants expected to be added annually to our already surging labor force, the only way we can prevent the supposed demographic dividend from turning into a demographic curse of nightmarish proportions, is to create enough jobs to keep all the idle hands busy, and not take up alternate careers of the Naxalite/Maoist/Religious Fundamentalist persuasion. As the Chinese experience has shown, large factories are the only place capable of absorbing millions of workers productively on a long term basis, besides affording them a chance to move up the value chain. Though we may have leapfrogged directly from an agrarian to a service economy, it is the crucial missing link, namely the manufacturing sector, which will be the critical determinant of whether or not we are able to lift millions of starving Indians out of the desperate grinding poverty that has been their eternal companion, and up to a better future in the years ahead.
Where does that lead us on the whole question of land acquisition?… well, it’s important to lay down a few ground rules. Clearly, forcible acquisition without adequate compensation is not an option- Govt law must stipulate well defined norms to ensure that all stakeholders are fairly compensated, not just in terms of cash but also in the form of a certain percentage of jobs being reserved for the inhabitants of that area (the details on this piece of legislation are being ironed out as you read). But let’s also keep in mind that land is a limited commodity and there is only so much of it to go around. As we move into the next phase of growth, more and more factories/plants/economic zones will need to be put up, and in each case, the land on which such projects are built will belong to someone or the other.
To allow the interests of a vocal protesting minority to override the hopes and aspirations of the quiet majority (as is indeed the case in several recent high-profile cases),would only provide a fillip to ever new bands of professional do-gooders who can see no merit in development of any sort. The fundamental fact is that this country needs jobs, jobs are created in factories and factories cannot be built in thin air- acquiring land belonging to others is a pre-requisite if we are to come even close to achieving the goals we have set out for the 21st century. Doing so with everyone’s consent would be ideal, but waiting for that consent till kingdom come is a luxury this nation simply cannot afford.